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The layers Dan Bellm’s third book of poetry, Practice, are as thick as they are conscious and as deep as they are unconscious. Practice is conceived and organized as a collection of midrashic text. Midrash is, from Bellm’s note, “an ancient Jewish form of biblical interpretation, imaginatively explaining or expanding the text beyond its apparent literal meaning.” Many of the poems in Practice include a reference to the Torah portion with which the poem is in conversation. As a result, the book spirals outward from the poems, to the endnotes, to the Torah, to our own daily lives and beyond. The textual layers also include conversations with a number of other poets and poems, referenced directly or obliquely, including Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Celan, and Sharon Olds. All of this accumulates to create a density and gravity in the book that reflects Bellm’s midrashic intent.
The best poems in Practice build dialogue among a variety of texts and voices. The weakest ones, and there are only a few, rehash midrash without fresh observation and insight. Poems such as “Before Words” and “Blessing Him” are tender poems about Bellm’s son that resist the sentimental while celebrating the mysterious and uncertain. Poems such as “Esau” and “The Crossing” demonstrate Bellm’s mastery of form; these two villanelles are vibrant transformations achieved through the obsessive, repetitive form.
The poems of Practice are poems of engagement and innovation. Not only does Bellm engage the Hebrew texts in profound and interesting ways, he also engages the poetry in new ways. Near the end of the book, Bellm writes a “Blessing” and a “Curse” which are to be read simultaneously. This capacity of holding multiple emotions and intentions in a single shell is central to reading and understanding his poems.
The spiritual, ethical, and artistic center of this book is in the poem “Brand new.” “Brand new,” a poem in five sections, is equal part elegy, lyric, and narrative. It is steeped in the collision of the contemporary world with the world of the ancient Jews. The poem begins with the lyrics from “Summertime” and from there language transforms throughout the poem to include words of the Torah, reading from the Haggadah, and morning prayers. “Brand new” addresses both the basic fears and the greatest hopes of the poet and of the people in his poem. Bellm writes,
…………………………What if our lives
are forgotten, and what if we’re lost? We live on in
others but they will also die, and one day
it will be as if none of us had lived. I want to believe,
when everything that was given to us is taken
back, love remains, and won’t forget.
Bellm wants to believe, but we are not quite sure if he does — or if we do. It is in this uncertainty that we find the humanity of Bellm’s work.